4 reasons you are playing Pokémon Go: uncovering the mechanics behind the hype

The buzz around Pokémon Go has been justly matched by the game’s record-breaking numbers – over a 100 million downloads in just over a month. To cut through the hype we got playing ourselves and spent time hunting and gathering Pokémon with local players – all full-time employed Londoners in their mid 20s and 30s. We asked – What’s going on? What makes Pokémon Go unique? What are the mechanics behind the hype? And is it here to stay? We did not avoid some of the more obvious, well-rehearsed answers. Much has been written about Pokémon tapping into nostalgia. The game has been heralded as a cure for obesity and social anxiety, and criticised for pulling us further into our phones. But as we walked, spun Poke-balls and caught the ubiquitous rattatas, we discovered a less conventional, more vivid story. The Pokémon Go phenomenon articulates some of the acutely felt tensions that characterise our contemporary lives. It’s a story about what’s lost and found in the world of mobile apps, in the liminal spaces between the augmented and the real, the extravert and the introvert; between childhood and adulthood, action and idleness, past and present.

It creates a sense of place in code

“The sense of discovery and surprise related to finding virtual items in real world locations is by far the best thing about this game.” (Bill, 29 years old)

Pokémon Go’s ability to heighten its players sense of space and place is at odds with the now familiar lament that we are all glued to the screens, unaware of the spaces and faces around us. We are told we need to fix that disconnection between ourselves and our environments. Does Pokémon Go exacerbate the problem or does it offer a solution? Can’t give up your smartphone? Want to get out? Perhaps you can have the best of both worlds.

By re-enchanting familiar places and turning mundane streets into magical hunting grounds, the game makers bring the players back to the real and the local. A meaningful relationship is created – not just with the app, but with the players’ worlds. George, a 24-year-old actuary, realised that he knew the route to a specific location thanks to the game. John, 31, discovered a sculpture he’s never seen before on a street he walked every day for the past 3 years. Learning about the neighbourhood and discovering new sights contributes to the feeling of doing something worthy of one’s time and effort. Many players spoke of a sense of achievement and pride.

Niantic created a truly global phenomenon characterised by uniquely local flavours. The game allows users to reconnect with their environments, and offers a unique, individualised experience. In most games moves and features are set, you are going through the same world as others. In Pokémon Go, “it’s about where you are; you and the game become a part of that specific landscape” (Hanna, 23).

Pokémon Go allows you to experience the game in your own unique way. “The random, chance element of catching Pokémon is my favourite thing about the game. It’s unpredictable and unique for every player”- Camilla, a 28-year old working at a start-up, praised the individualised nature of the game.

By reconnecting people with their local environments and showing how smartphones can help them interact with familiar spaces differently, Niantic has identified potential clues to where the future of urban policy, marketing and commercial applications might be headed. Individualised and local may well be the answers to the tensions and fractures of our lives.

“You can’t play it during a toilet break”

“Millennials need to make everything competitive, especially exercise. This is why this game works so well for us. It tricks us into getting out, and rewards us with new Pokémon and better stats”. (Sarah, 32)

Pokémon Go has tapped into the quantified self movement and activity tracking. The mentality that “exercise has only occurred if you logged it” is exactly what the game makers are appealing to. Pokémon logs activities and rewards walking by letting you catch new Pokémon and hatch eggs. George has the app open to hatch the eggs while scootering around. In one week he has walked a 100 km. The game rewards him with two stars on his ‘Jogger’ badge. But there is a long way to go: he will have to walk 1000 km to complete this particular challenge.

Walking about and exploring are among the many active, extraverted “-ing” activities that define the players’ relationship with the game. They go together with collecting, chasing, hunting, evolving. The active nature of the game takes away the guilt and the embarrassment, caused by playing a ‘kids’ game. It also cajoles the less active and outgoing players to get out.

Collecting in particular has proved to have a strong appeal. That’s what gets users hooked, offering a steep accumulation curve early on in the game. The way collecting Pokémon works contributes to the sense of achievement. As Camilla pointed out, the number of Pokémon you’ve collected reflects the work you put into it, not the money you spent. It’s an addiction and a gamble, but one where time and effort get rewarded.

Pokémon Go is also an activity in itself. It’s not a game you can play during a toilet break or stationary. The fact that you need to make time for it has a clear appeal for players who want to be (seen as) active and adventurous. Games like Candy Crush are easier to get addicted to. Once the habit has formed, however, it has much deeper roots in one’s life.

Tracking activity is a strong driver for some people, especially at the early stages of the game discovery. However, our own research in the area (as well as work done by many others), suggests that tracking activity in this way has a short shelf life. It came as no surprise that even the most committed players didn’t think they’d be playing Pokémon Go in six months’ time.

“It’s like tinder for nerds.”

“Pokémon Go creates an easy excuse to start talking to someone you don’t know, which is great for less outgoing, shy people. It’s like tinder for nerds.” (George, 24)

The story about phones emphasises towards the gaze turned inwards. Pokémon Go actively confronts that. As the game does not have socialising features, the socialising needs to happen offline. It’s not typical for strangers to be talking to each other in places like London. Thanks to Pokémon Go, they are now arranging meet-ups, gathering around lure spots, helping each other find rare Pokémon. Bankers in Canary Wharf and the City are investing in lures, turning  otherwise unappealing locations into destination for Poke-hunters.

The game creates moments of social interaction that have to be negotiated. Sometimes you feel embarrassed, sometimes you feel the connection. But no matter what you feel, it’s off screen, it’s real. By adding a layer of transparency into phone use, the game heightens the sense of awareness of what you and others are doing. You recognise the motion, the spinning and the throwing of the Poke-ball, the look of content and excitement. You suddenly know what the stranger next to you is doing. And you are doing it together.

The off-screen socialising reveals a profound desire to “get real” – with spaces as well as with people. By giving players confidence to enter new spaces, Niantic uses future technology to pull users back in time in a positive way. Back to a time when there was no online, when playing, collecting and exploring had to be real.


Forever Young?

“It’s about bringing back the childhood aspect for me. Being in a big scary world, not at school anymore, it’s nice to connect to a time when you were a kid and things were simple”. (Hanna, 23)

The most commonly discussed reason behind the game’s popularity, nostalgia, is perhaps the “odd one out” feature. It is strikingly different from the outward, active qualities of the game. The chance to re-connect to times past is what makes the game escapist and introvert. It’s the world of childhood memories, and not the AR, that turns our gaze inwards.

For some, having played the game in the past legitimised spending hours playing it in the present. For others, it was the sole reason they played it. Whatever the reasons were, players were passionate about remembering something that was unique and personal. The Pokémon cards today’s 30-year-olds traded with their friends, the Red & Blue Pokémon, the Gameboy, were tangible experiences. The reality of those memories has an appeal few people could have anticipated.

The Future: Games for the In-Betweeners?


The appeal of memories, local spaces and social encounters, all speak of people’s desire to return to a time where one could walk the streets, talk to strangers and play games with friends – yet without having to give up the wonders of smartphone technology. Niantic uncovered those desires before anyone else did. Pokémon Go is far from being a perfect gaming experience.

But at its best, it gives clues to what makes gaming experience most attractive. Pokémon Go’s mechanics are not well balanced, the feature set is thin, and no buzz lasts forever. It’s unlikely the game sees the year out. But what we can learn from the game’s success, is that creating a deeper understanding of the liminal spaces in people’s lives – and the tensions that define their existence – is much more important than getting the mechanics or the PR right.

We’re grateful to Pokémon Go for a summer of fun and a chance to understand what has made this the phenomenon it is.